Empathy is the quality parents most often tell me they want their children to have as adults. None of us are born with empathy. It’s a value we pass on through relationships with others, our kids watch us from when they are small. If we want our children to have empathy for others we need to start raising kids that way from the start.

adventure backlit dawn dusk
Being part of a caring community helps kids have empathy

What can adults do to have kids with empathy?

Brene Brown says empathy is not just about being sympathetic, there is a big difference between sympathy and empathy. Empathy is made up of three things staying out of judgment; perspective taking and feeling things with people. In our CV19 world we see examples of people making sacrifices to help others. We also see people who act in their own self-interest to the detriment of others. Children see the world through our eyes. Other people’s struggle can be invisible to us or we can see it clearly when we have empathy.

Adults who want kids to have empathy need to talk to kids about their feelings

The first step to developing empathy is for children to understand their own emotions. Only when they learn this can they begin to look outward and understand another person’s point of view. Talking about feelings might seem odd at first. Here in New Zealand it’s not the dominant culture. Most people put on a brave face and ignore their feelings. The trouble is that this never works. Feelings will always come out. For our children this can be the cause of unwanted behaviour. The consequences of not being aware of our own feelings and not understanding how to process them stores up problems in the future. Our kids, especially boys, are less likely to talk about how they feel unless we show them how. The research is that we spend less time talking to boys about their feelings and that they are more likely to act out and use their physicality to express emotion. Unless we change our culture and start talking to kids in a way that helps them understand their feelings kids won’t develop the skills they need to manage their emotions or develop empathy.

Seven billion people experienced today in a different way

Kids who have empathy know that feelings start in the body

Very young children can begin to understand how feelings work when we talk about how a feeling feels in the body. We can describe how feelings begin. Books are great at helping with this learning. The penguin in the book has an asking feeling in his tummy – what do you think that means? We can model it. I am having a strong feeling now and I am scrunching up my fists”, could be the beginning of frustration. We all know the feeling we get when we forget an important event like a friend’s birthday or we are about to go into an exam. It’s that feeling in our stomach when we are in the car and we go over a bump in the road. This could be anxiety. Our behaviour is strongly connected to these physical sensations so it makes sense to pay attention to them. Sometimes a good feeling can be too much and the intensity can overwhelm our child. This can be the cause of behaviour which spills over into silliness or aggression.

photo of boy jumping beside girl
Feelings can overwhelm our child

How it looks to show empathy

The best way to help kids learn empathy is to show them how to do it. Be aware of feelings and label them. Model “I feel….” statements to help kids develop emotional literacy and help them to understand themselves better. Parents who do this are actually showing kids how to be empathetic. It’s much easier to be the calm, alert and focused one, when we know what we are trying to achieve. Instead of making our child wrong for having a feeling – “Don’t be silly, you love lasagne!” pause for a moment and let the feeling come out. What is going on for our particular child, with their particular temperament and needs? Having a feeling is not bad and we need to talk about the full range of feelings, even when we think it may make us look vulnerable. I’m going to say that another way. Parents need to talk about our feelings, especially when we think it may make us look vulnerable. Kids will see that we also have the full range of emotions and this will help them to learn how emotions work.

mother giving his son medicine
Don’t be scared to let your child see your vulnerable side

Empathy is not about being perfect

Many parents fear that “giving in” to an emotion means they will look weak. I’ve written about the importance of being big on empathy and how it’s not the same as being a permissive parent. https://gtgparenting.co.nz/2019/10/10/why-punishment-doesnt-work/ Parents fear that by showing their child we “get” their feelings that it will turn them into a spoilt brat. Somehow this will make them weak by pandering to their feelings. Making a child wrong for a feeling only adds to their emotional load. A child with a brain that is still developing will find it even harder to get back into a calm and alert state when we put roadblocks in the way.

Feelings are messy and unpredictable. I can guarantee it will feel awkward and like we are doing it all wrong when we allow kids the space to have all the feelings. Keep going. This is where the learning happens. We get disappointed, annoyed and sometimes we don’t feel like eating vegetarian lasagne. By showing kids we get it, we help them process the emotion. We help them to move on. It has to be at their pace, not ours and it has to be when they are ready.

crop person touch palms with newborn baby on gray backdrop
Kids need safe people to share their tough and uncomfortable feelings

Empathy is about communicating that we feel things with people

The quality of our relationships are all about the quality of our communication.  If we think about how we would treat an adult friend who comes to our house for dinner and we can treat our child the way we would treat our adult friend, this will go a long way towards a relationship that has empathy at it’s heart. Feeling things with our child is what we are aiming for. Parents need a lot of dedication and a whole lot of patience to pass on empathy to their kids. Keep aiming to help kids understand and manage their emotions. This is the kind of relationship in which empathy will grow. Every child is capable of being an adult with empathy when they have lived with an adult who can show them how it’s done.

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